The woman has a big secret: unknown to her family, she’s running a phone-sex business from home. Only her best friend knows the truth.
It sounds like the plot of a good soap. But this woman is one of 61 participants in a study looking at the way we cover up secrets in our emails. The results suggest we’re not as good at hiding them as we think.
Yla Tausczik at the University of Maryland in College Park and her colleagues recruited people who admitted to having had an “enormous secret” in the last seven years. They posted flyers in major cities, sent out emails and posted ads on Amazon Mechanical Turk and Craig’s List. The response was pretty high: 1133 people completed an initial questionnaire. Of these, 179 met the researchers’ requirements and 61 ultimately took part.
Studying secrets is tough, says Tausczik. “You can’t bring people with secrets into the lab, you can’t bring in their friends without raising suspicion.” To get round this, the team decided to look at people’s emails.
Most of the participants had secrets that were romantic or sexual in nature – involving adultery or undisclosed homosexuality, for example. Some were hiding medical problems. Others had secrets that they felt would destroy their school or work lives if known.
Even so, all the participants agreed to give the researchers access to their email accounts. They each provided the date when the secret had first started, as well as the people they were keeping the secret from or sharing it with.
After scrubbing the emails of identifying information, the researchers combed through the language used in more than 59,000 messages. Using software to analyse the text revealed that secret-keepers tended to be more socially active than expected – they were “hypervigilant”, says Tausczik. “A lot of the previous literature would have suggested social withdrawal.”
In particular, they took great care to maintain relationships with those they wanted to keep in the dark, sending them more emails per month after they started keeping a secret than they had before.
The study also looked at people’s relationships with those who knew their secret. Secret-keepers tended to mirror the language of their confidants much more, suggesting a close relationship. They also used more negative emotional words – such as “hurt”, “ugly” and “nasty” – and words related to insight or causation, such as “realise”, “because” and “if”. The team will present the work at the International Conference on Web and Social Media in Cologne, Germany, this month.
David Markowitz at Stanford University thinks that Tausczik and her colleagues have found a clever way to get at information that by its nature is meant to be hidden. “Email is an important platform for understanding deception because it bridges social and professional worlds for many people,” he says.
The study shows how secret-keepers attempt to hide the fact they have a secret by trying to act normally with those they are keeping the secret from. But such efforts can be overdone, says Markowitz. “Liars often fail to properly estimate behaviour patterns of truthful communicators.”
Markowitz and his colleague Jeff Hancock found this when they looked at research papers that had been retracted due to scientific misconduct. These tended to contain more references than papers describing legitimate results.
In the long run, this kind of research might pave the way for systems that can detect deception automatically, says Norah Dunbar at the University of California, Santa Barbara. At the moment, we are still trying to figure out if there are recognisable linguistic patterns at all. “But I think the long term goal for a lot of people in this area is to be predictive,” she says.
It is tempting to think that an algorithm could simply detect something fishy, says Markowitz. But to spot secrets automatically we may need to gather many more pieces of information and capture an individual’s wider behaviour beyond just language use, he says.
What happens when old secrets come to light? Safe Harbour airs over four weeks, premiering Wednesday 7 March at 8.30pm on SBS. All episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation with #SafeHarbour.